Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s The Hard Way: The Films of Bette Davis which runs from November 15th to December 8th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Her first film back under contract with Warner Bros. since earlier fleeing its terms for fear of damaging her career with a spate of sub-par parts, Marked Woman was a movie that capitalised on the prominent public support the court case had brought Bette Davis, and launched her from erstwhile acclaim to full-fledged superstardom. “There’s only one way to work on chumps,” is what’s said by the racket boss under whom her character here takes on a hostess role in a clip joint, but it might just as easily be an announcement of the uncanny skills that characterised this talent. Audiences were—indeed still are—as chumps worked on under Davis’ spell, powerless to resist her projections no matter the movie they’re in.
When the camera eventually lands, fixated, on her face, it’s only playing catch-up with our eyes.
Marked Woman’s an apt name, in its own way: to fall foul of the studio system, with its unaccommodating actor contracts, was as to commit career suicide. Yet Jack Warner’s cross-continental pursuit of his player was less a power play than simply a shrewd business move, given the massive popular support Davis’ demands earned in spite of her loss of the suit and the box office appeal he knew was sure to follow. To see her here is to see a star persona being built before us: we spy her first in the background looking nonchalantly on, all shoulder straps and cigarettes, as her employer’s overtaken by the latest new hot shot in town. When the camera eventually lands, fixated, on her face, it’s only playing catch-up with our eyes.
It’s difficult to be domineering in a dominated role, yet that’s precisely Davis’ coup here, powerfully projecting a character who’s oft-overshadowed by the men around her. There’s a quiet ferocity at work beneath this woman’s fearfulness, a glint in the eye that might seem almost the seed of a plan by which to emerge from under this subordination. From that opening scene, in which the latest gangster declares his new approach to business, Davis shines as one set on surviving despite her circumstances, playing her new boss exactly as he thinks he’s playing her. The benefits and consequences of her cunning mastery of her position may be the concern of the movie, but it’s never so interesting as that inimitable presence through which it’s explored.
It’s difficult to be domineering in a dominated role, yet that’s precisely Davis’ coup here, powerfully projecting a character who’s oft-overshadowed by the men around her.
Which is to say, in a sense, that Davis is better here than the movie around her. It’s a film that, knowingly or not, wears its period on its sleeve, starting out with the kind of gangster story with which Warner had succeeded earlier in the decade—a fact slyly nodded to with a flashing neon “Paul Muni” in the opening scene’s background—before progressing to a police plot and eventually ending in a protracted courtroom drama. This is a film very much of three acts, each neatly delineated along a particular generic line with a keenness that’s entirely resistant to cohesion. It’s an unremarkable story, if not an entirely uninteresting one, hitting on popular plot points of the time without any particular point.
Yet through it all, Marked Woman remains the Bette Davis show; if it’s a tad emotionally underwhelming, she doesn’t care to let her audience know. Amidst Lloyd Bacon’s unassuming approach and the certain staidness of the script he directs, Davis shines and blows off the cobwebs around. Such was the hallmark of the real Hollywood star: there are scenes she shares here with a similarly fresh-faced Humphrey Bogart, playing the district attorney who arrives about halfway through; the dialogue is unremarkable, but you wouldn’t know that just watching the scenes played out. Here are actors who had the power to make a movie far better than ever it had any right to be.
[notification type=”star”]62/100 ~ OKAY. Marked Woman remains the Bette Davis show; if it’s a tad emotionally underwhelming, she doesn’t care to let her audience know.[/notification]